2017 in retrospect: the 50 best amvs (30 – 21)

30. Cneq – Here With Me

Anime: Made In The Abyss
Song: “Here With Me” by Susie Suh X Robot Koch

Cneq has proven this year that he’s a good storyteller. Although his videos appear to be little more than anime-summary AMVs, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and if you’re able to find the right song — go for it. Here With Me is a heavy, slow drama video, the kind that you watch when you want to feel sad and hopeless and utterly despondent. Using nothing more than crossfades, hard cuts and maybe the occasional slow zoom, Cneq strings a thread of despair and tragedy that burrows deep into the chest. This is not something that you want to fire up frequently, and I say that in the most complimentary way possible — like any media, AMVs can move us in profound ways that seep into our day-to-day lives, and Here With Me is as good an example as I saw all year.

29. Bauzi – HYPERLUST

Anime: Serial Experiments Lain
Song: “Say It” by Röyksopp & Robyn

Serial Experiments Lain videos, almost without exception, have at their focal point the boundary between the real and the digital, with varying degrees of literalism. If I’m honest, it’s become a bit tiring; I sometimes wish that people would try to do something new with the source, especially because it has such rich imagery and potential to be used in more creative ways, but I hardly blame people for being inspired by SEL in a particular direction and then running with it. Bauzi did just that in HYPERLUST, and while it’s a played out concept in one sense, I have to admit this is the first time I’ve seen the real/digital shtick executed in such a straightforward, narrative way.

And while that’s great enough on its own, it is an utterly masterful use of effects that pushes this over the top into truly memorable territory. Bauzi said in his video description that this was his attempt to create “glitchart”; while I have no real intentionally glitchart control to measure HYPERLUST against, it’s probably about as close to such an aesthetic as I could imagine given no other information. The effects are highly tailored and synced in really striking ways, and the crossover element fits so perfectly well into the world Bauzi has created in this video’s four minutes that it feels like this is a perfectly believable alternate timeline in Lain‘s universe.

28. KazKon – Alice In Broken Land

Anime: Psycho-Pass // Psycho-Pass (Movie) // Psycho-Pass 2
Song: “Delusion” by Rezz

If preachy, conceptual, glitchy AMVs are your thing, there was no better editor to keep tabs on this year than KazKon, whose 2017 opus was definitely Alice In Broken Land, a sync-heavy look at a dystopian future where serial killers are bred and set loose in the city to be hunted down on live, reality television. KazKon gets stylish and psychedelic with this one (oh, who am I kidding, he does that every time), rendering his video entirely in black-and-white and making heavy use of text and kaleidoscopic effects. The world he creates is dismal, grim, and completely engrossing and believable. His technical skill is matched by an immaculate sense of rhythm, and as a result this video flows incredibly smoothly despite the harsh techno song. It pulses and twists to the beat, utilizing both internal and external sync in equal measure to create something that is visually among the most captivating videos on this list.

It can feel heavy-handed, and occasionally contrived, yes, but it’s all easily forgiven when one notices just how much time and care went into creating something this involved and intricate. KazKon seems to push himself with each successive video, and he’s constantly improving. Where 2018 will take him, I don’t know, but my money is on “up”.

27. MycathatesyouAMV – Money$hot

Anime: Noragami
Song: “24K Magic” by Bruno Mars

If you haven’t seen this video before and are familiar with the song “24K Magic”, I want you to stop right now and close your eyes, and imagine what kind of cuts, scenes, and effects would work best with that song. Done? There’s about a 100% probability that you just imagined Money$hot in its entirety, because what in the world could be more spot-on than this?

I love this song in spite of its hedonism and bling-worship and general narcissism, and MCHY takes everything that’s great about it — the funk, the auto-tune, the “Woo!”s and “Uh oh!”s — and seamlessly edits every element into a fluid stream of visual puns and lip sync. It’s relentlessly upbeat and immediately gratifying, the AMV equivalent of your favorite kind of self-indulgent snack food. Noragami apparently lends itself to this kind of video (see: Petaloso from last year) but I don’t get tired of it, and I’ll gladly take one or more a year if this is the kind of thing I have to look forward to each time.

26. Nuukauuka – Video Galaxy

Anime: The Tatami Galaxy
Song: “All Night” by Parov Stelar

Exactly half of what made The Tatami Galaxy such an outstanding anime was its story and unique narrative presentation; the other half was its equally distinctive, surrealist visuals. Video Galaxy doesn’t bother so much with the former, opting instead for an acid trip tour through the weird and fantastical imagery found throughout the anime. It succeeds in its mostly hands-off editing approach, letting the visuals do the talking and using hard cuts and occasional subtle effects fill in the gaps. Truthfully, Nuukauuka probably didn’t have to do too much to pump this one out — there are some great moments of internal sync here and there but there’s nothing overly fancy about this video no matter how you spin it. But it works so well, and is probably one of the most representative videos of the anime that I’ve seen; sometimes less is more.

25. Copycat_Revolver – Persephone Complex

Anime: Ga-Rei Zero
Song: “Anthmes For A Seventeen Year Old Girl” by Broken Social Scene

It’s rare for Copycat_Revolver to indulge in such straight-faced drama like this. I keep waiting for the punchline, however thin, but it never comes — instead we’re left with a tragic, angsty romance video and nothing to leave a smile at the end, or anywhere throughout. If I didn’t know who was editing it, it wouldn’t be so strange, but…

In any case, it’s a darn fine release. The way the story develops is edited in such a way as to line up with the song’s three main “sections”, and the tension evolves along with it — going from lighthearted romance to serious romance to “Ok what the heck is going o–WHAAAAT” over the course of a few minutes (might help to state here that I’ve never seen Ga-Rei Zero, so it was a pretty riveting watch for me the first time around). It’s nice to see a video develop in such an unexpected way, and to experience so many emotions is a thrill. The editing is often times subtle, with very occasional but unobtrusive lyric sync providing some cohesion; otherwise it’s far removed from C_R’s usual internal sync-heavy style. It flows in an abstract way with the music, but it never stumbles once. Discard any expectations you have going into this one based on the editor — it’s a different but immensely satisfying watch.

24. neko kitkat – Colors

Anime: Black Butler (manga)
Song: “True Colors” by Zedd

Using manga as a primary source in a video is always a risk for the viewer — more often than not, it’s just a boring slideshow that relies on a deep familiarity with the source to get anything out of it. Colors, however, is different (if not entirely unique) in that neko kitkat actually animated many of the characters and scenes from the manga she used to make everything more dynamic, intense, and all-around interesting. I don’t want the casual viewer to misunderstand, either — an absolute ton of work would have gone into this video’s creation. Animating still images in a believable, non-cheesy way is not simple. Masking, layers, nested compositions…it’s no joke.

And the result speaks for itself. Take away any knowledge you might have of the behind-the-scenes processes to make this video and it still stands taller than most — rarely is manga ever given this much life. The context of the entire video amplifies every tiny, manufactured mouth movement by many times; every arm motion or widening eye or head tilt imparts so much emotion and meaning. Even when she’s not animating static, masked images, there’s always motion — in overlays, or in the panels she transplants from the manga into the video. For such a static source, neko kitkat never once lets us dwell on the fact that she’s using a manga, unless it’s in the context of how unlike a typical MMV this really is. The atmosphere and mood created in this video is as much a product of things as tangible as the song and muted color palettes as it is the more intangible elements such as the way the source plays on your subconscious as you watch it. Deeply seductive and instantly memorable, Colors was neko kitkat’s crowning achievement this year, and it just makes me all that more excited to see what she has in store for 2018.

23. Jurrutt Cuurtnuy – Part A

Anime: Neon Genesis Evangelion
Song: “Fall Back” by Factory Floor

I’ll spoil this one for you right off the bat — this is literally a chronological episode-by-episode recap of sorts of the original Evangelion series, so no, we’re not getting into conceptually innovative territory with this one. But the editing here is of a type that has been somewhat out of style in recent years; instead of trying to make something smooth and visually fluid, Jurrutt opts instead for a jarring, jumpy, entirely-hard-cut technique, syncing heavily to the music (a pulsing techno track). It’s flashy, rapid-fire, and hard on the eyes at the best of times, but it’s so stylistically different from anything being released right now that it’s immediately arresting.

It manages to capture all the great moments from the series, and somehow captures the heart of each and every episode (episode 4, for example, is the only moment where the video takes a kind of break and injects two extended-cut scenes of the rainy city, before moving along to the next episode and getting into fast-cut territory again). For non-Eva fans, this will probably just be a garish hyperspeed montage of all the scenes you’ve seen in countless other Evangelion videos, but for those of you who love the series, it’s probably the best pure AMV-form summary of Evangelion you can get.

22. Cheis – Albóre

Anime: Various
Song: “Around Us” by Jónsi

It’s always interesting to me when editors set out to make really epic-feeling videos and fall flat in the process, instead producing something that looks and feels manufactured and fake. Of course, these videos often still get massively popular (for a recent example, see Weeaboo Peekaboo — sorry Shin), but they tend to rub me HARD in the wrong way, because the blatant emotional manipulation on display just really, really gets under my skin. I know, I know, they’re just AMVs, chill out man, but I’ve put a whole lot of time into this hobby, so I just take some things personally.

Then there are editors that are able to put together a truly epic-feeling video and make it feel completely organic, natural, and real…like Cheis does in Albóre. (There’s also a third kind where this happens accidentally, but I’m not sure how to fit that into the discussion at hand, so I’ll just leave it there.) It’s clear that Cheis knew what he was doing when he made this — it’s certainly edited in a very exact, intentional way, and the song choice is definitely a specific type of melodrama that you can’t feign — but it doesn’t matter, because the video succeeds in feeling huge and full of emotion. It probably helps that the video explores the concept of perspective, and comparing oneself with the vastness of the universe — a suitably weighty subject for any AMV, and one that wouldn’t do with anything other than overstated sentimentality. It’s a wonderful, thrilling video, and an absolutely epic one at that.

21. Copycat_Revolver – Heart Failure

Anime: Various (Monogatari series)
Song: “Heartbeat” by Childish Gambino

Copycat_Revolver’s made a lot of videos over the years, and I don’t know that he’s used any source more frequently than the various anime in the Monogatari series. It’s an overused source, no question about it, and yet it seems like every time C_R touches it, something new comes out the other end. Heart Failure is a dark and twisted video, helped largely by the sinister, psychotic song. It’s full of violence and sex and suggestive imagery, but man it oozes a heavy atmosphere, and those who know my tastes in AMVs know that atmosphere is everything. Its explicit nature may not find a fan in every viewer — which is totally understandable — but if you can stomach some of the grittier moments here, you’ll find all of C_R’s trademark editing tricks and a certain grim humor pervading it, like all his best work.

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2017 in retrospect: the 50 best amvs (40 – 31)

40. Ileia // Various – The Weeb Jams Megamix

Anime: Various
Song: “Jock Jams Megamix” by Jock Jams

Sports anime have never been my thing — almost. I guess I’ve seen a couple (and what I have seen was actually pretty fricking good), but I’m usually not drawn to this type of anime in any way, shape, or form, so it should hopefully say something about the quality of this video that I like it so much. This is an example of pure editing prowess in 100-meter sprint form — fast-paced scenes of sweaty athletes going at it hard set to a megamix of tracks any self-respecting ’90s 20-something would recognize immediately…not much to dislike here. Even the brief moments of humor are fantastic and well-placed. While MEPs these days often seem to just act as brief demo reels for the editors involved, it’s refreshing to see one that has such a simple and intentionally uncomplicated focus, and an equally bare-bones approach. It’s proof that that’s all you really need.

39. Nellogs – An Indie Film

Anime: Hal
Song: “Sorry I Was Sorry” by Adult Mom

The VHS filter wore out its welcome last year by all accounts, and yet this year I saw some of the first videos that used it the way I feel it was meant to be used — with an actual concept to legitimize it. An Indie Film is one such video — the washed-out color filter, film dust, and VHS distortion effects paired with an achingly hipster lo-fi indie song sung from the mouth of a scorned lover give this video’s title the weight it deserves. It’s a loosely-edited piece, playing heavily on the “pompous college Art 101” aesthetic, while still managing to be a poignant and tragic look at the end of a relationship. Take note, wannabe-trendy editors itching to start making the next faux-VHS masterpiece — this is how you do it. Which is to say, it’s been done, so don’t.

38. Elcalavero – The Red Book

Anime: Big Fish and Begonia
Song: “Home (feat. Jose Gonzalez)” by Barbarossa

As one of Elcalavero’s more “normal” videos, The Red Book is still distinctly his; he uses a song that is rife with sync opportunities, and takes almost none of them, charting a more free-flowing route through the music than most other people probably would. He creates a mood and turns his eye more on the background synths than on the prominent drum beats — what we get is a loosely-synced, stream-of-consciousness video that evades any kind of straightforward visual rhythm. In the end it’s classic Elcalavero, relying much more on the anime’s fantastical scenery and the inherent emotion and wonder such scenes impart, than on any kind of pure editing tricks to get its point across, and it’s beautiful.

37. UnluckyArtist – No Limits!

Anime: Various
Song: “No Limit” by 2 Unlimited

Techno and futurism have always walked hand-in-hand, ever since electronic music became a thing — electronic music is always the go-to soundtrack for sci-fi movies and TV shows and flash-forwards, often satirically, but just as often as a serious sonic presence in our imaginations for what we’ll be listening to 100 years from now, or as a generic ambient background noise for picturing our society in as many years’ time. It’s a kind of weird irony, then, that leads us to No Limits!, an homage not only to old-school anime and AMVs in general, but to a less refined vision of the future than we have now, but which might have been common 20 years ago.

The majority of the anime in this video are ’90s sci-fi shows and movies, with the occasional shounen anime thrown in. It’s action-packed and colorful and it feels like the kind of thing a 10-year-old boy might enjoy watching to get himself ready for a Saturday of cartoons, video games, and junk food. There’s a certain unrestrained quality to this video, like UnluckyArtist was indulging in some sort of forbidden guilty pleasure by creating it. It’s stupid fun, a throwback to an era of cheesy hardkore techno and adventurous space anime, the likes of which we’ll probably never quite get to experience again.

36. Azexous – Oh-Hi-Yo!

Anime: Various
Song: “Oddloop” by Frederic

I feel like every year there’s at least one video on my list that “I just shouldn’t like” because of various reasons…in this case, it’s excessive text use, lots of masking and crossover-type stuff going on, candy effects, and the like, but man does it all work in such seamless, eye-pleasing harmony that I can’t help but love it. For those not won over, it may help to read a translation of the lyrics — there’s actually a bit of a story going on here and although shallow, you’re really getting the whole package here with the pretty color palettes, fun sync, and super stylish atmosphere. Yeah it’s a bit trendy, and yeah this is normally the kind of thing I would immediately dismiss out of hand — but if you’re like me, give it a shot, because it’s a wickedly good ride.

35. risarei – strawberry bubblegum

Anime: Various
Song: “Strawberry Bubblegum (Allure Remix)” by Justin Timberlake

This reminds me in a lot of ways of a video I put on my list last year — one Satellite Towns — in that it mixes a lot of disparate, unrelated anime, has generally crummy video quality (up to and including mixing 16:9 and 4:3 footage), and no really obvious conceptual or aesthetic thread running through it. Still, it’s one of those weird and rare instances where none of this matters; in fact, it might be that these are all things that I like about it, as they add a certain “underground” quality to it. This isn’t something that most people would ever seek out, or would turn off after 30 seconds if they stumbled across it. It’s a video that will forever be lost in the sea of YouTube, and yet somehow I have it, and get to enjoy it. It’s the little things like this that make the hobby exciting.

The video is hard to talk about because of the lack of cohesion, but in a general sense it looks like a pop song such as this sounds — this is ultimately a pretty trite thing to say, I think, but I can’t figure a better way to describe it. There’s a lot of color manipulation going on, stock transitions, and the like, and it all complements the nonsensical lyrics and general upbeat vibe of the song. “Fun” and “action” are probably too strong of words to try and categorize this video, but risarei captures the mood of the song in a way I and most others probably never could have. I realize in the minute or less it probably took you to read this, I’ve said close to nothing of value about this video, but that probably means you should just watch it and judge for yourself.

34. Joy’s AMV – COME ON!

Anime: Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun
Song: “Henrietta” by The Fratellis

Joy’s AMV has been on my radar for years now; her videos from a couple years back were often on the verge of being really likable, but were usually held back by poor effects use or an overabundance of external sync that I just couldn’t get behind. COME ON! is the first of her videos where she really seems to have gotten it right — it’s a raucously entertaining summary of the relationship between the two main characters in Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun, full of energy and fun lyric sync. Although she also uses plenty of stock transitions, this is one of the few contexts in which they work — the fast pace of the editing and upbeat nature of the video makes such otherwise tacky effects feel right at home. It’s a good video choice for when you have two minutes or so to kill before that file finishes downloading, or the oven finishes cooking your dinner — something to smile at and feel good about before moving on with the rest of your day.

33. leolide – kaos

Anime: Seikaisuru Kado // Original live action
Song: “C418” by stranger_think

Say what you will about leolide but he is, without a doubt, one of the most driven and experimental editors out there right now, and also one of the most prolific — if you look at his YouTube channel you’ll find page after page of AMVs and making-of videos (no less than 100 posted in the last year alone). While I have not had the time to go through all of these, one of the most interesting that I found from the last 12 months is kaos, a short, proof-of-concept type video that mixes first-person live action with anime in a unique, apocalyptic way. Combining these two elements has certainly been done before, and while it’s sloppier here than in other examples, it would seem that it was never leolide’s intention to go all-out — this feels very experimental in every way, as if leolide was testing the waters to see if something like this could be done convincingly in the first place.

But the rough-around-the-edges approach lends it a certain haphazard feeling that dovetails with the video’s concept — a mysterious giant cube suddenly appearing in the midst of a city, before all sorts of (anime) people and creatures begin appearing all over the place. The video has this really lo-fi charm, helped in no small part by the film effects and color manipulation that cover every frame, that, for once, don’t feel trendy but feel pragmatic. Whether or not we’ll ever see this concept fleshed out more in future videos remains to be seen (it probably won’t be), but as an example of little-explored areas that AMVs can expand into, kaos is certainly one of the more intriguing examples out there.

32. aerialesque – Convergence

Anime: The Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below
Song: “Who Will Save Us Now?” by Dave Chappell

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now — this is pure anime-summary fare, no creative divergences or abstract interpretive passages included. Artsy critical types need not apply, I’ll just save you your time now. Maybe rewatch kaos, above, or find a different Top AMVs list to read (and let me know where you found it because I’d love to read it too). For the rest of us, Convergence should serve as a very satisfying drama entry, peak-hopping from one plot point to the next and essentially compacting The Children Who Chase Lost Voices into a neat and tidy three-and-a-half minutes (which is about all that’s needed for this particular movie, if I’m going to be honest). As ever, aerialesque demonstrates her ability to kill it with this approach — it’s saturated with dramatic scenes chosen carefully enough to get a feel for a larger story, but oddly enough the thing that got me was the way she used a bunch of scenes (mostly from near the end of the movie) that are rarely used in videos with this source, or at least the ones I’ve seen. She provides closure and there’s something to be said for that, especially when people seem to love using open-endedness as an excuse for lack of creativity.

So no, this isn’t the most ground-breaking video out there — it follows the tracks, it tells its story, and then it gets out of the way. But it packs a hugely emotional punch — many times more than anything I experienced while watching the movie itself — and milks the drama for all its worth, and I definitely think there’s a welcome place for videos like this on any year-end list.

31. PieandBeer – A Coming of Age Story

Anime: Osomatsu-san
Song: “So Long And Thanks For All The Fish” by Hilary Summers, Kemi Ominiyi, The R’SVP Voices

If you’re not familiar with the source of this song, some of the jokes in this video may be lost on you (and also shame on your for not being familiar with The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy in one form or another), but like the best comedy videos, PieandBeer creates something that’s funny just because it is, and not because of any extraneous knowledge you might need to “get” the jokes. There’s a healthy dose of astute lyric sync and her usual quick wit smattered throughout this AMV, but perhaps the most noteworthy element is that, if her video description is to be believed, she made this entire thing out of (mostly) one half of a single episode of Osomatsu-san; anyone who’s done any amount of AMV editing knows just how little footage that would be to work with, so to make something this fully functional and, well, funny, speaks to her skill…as if her years of videos prior to this one haven’t done that already.

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2017 in retrospect: the 50 best amvs (50 – 41)

As we move into the final part of my year-end posts, let me start by saying that 2017 was a fantastic year for AMVs, at least in my opinion. And it wasn’t just in terms of quality, it was quantity — the ratio of good to bad AMVs was probably higher in 2017 than I’ve seen it in years, and 2017 demonstrably had more AMVs that I really enjoyed compared to the past three years that I’ve been making these lists. I wish that every year were like this, because AMVs were a lot of things this year — but boring certainly wasn’t one of them.

What this means for you is that, instead of my usual Top 30 + 10 honorable mentions, I actually had more than enough material to make doing a proper Top 50 not only possible, but fairly difficult because of how many good AMVs I had to choose from. Although there’ll be no honorable mentions this year, there should be more than enough material to keep even the most diehard AMV fan entertained for a while. I have to be careful about setting a precedent this year though; although I wish I could have been doing a Top 50 each year to begin with, doing so requires having enough good AMVs to make it interesting, so while we feast this year, 2018 might not bring such good fortune. So, don’t expect another Top 50 in a year’s time, but with any luck I’ll be able to make it happen again.

As usual, I also want to lend some transparency to the process that brought me to these 50 particular videos; if you’ve been here in past years, it hasn’t changed in any significant way so you can probably skip this paragraph. Basically, every time I watch a new AMV I use AMV Tracker to rate it out of 10 and put it in my database. At the end of the year, I look back at all videos I’ve rated 7.5 or higher, go through and re-watch each and every one, and mark them as “Definitely keep”, “Maybe”, or “No” as I go. Then, I rewatch all the “Definitely keep” and “Maybe” ones, and figure out my rankings from there. It’s an involved process that takes several weeks to get through — as a result, I decided to not consider certain videos released in late December, simply because at the point they were released I was too deep into the process and I have limited time. For some perspective on the numbers: I watched 205 videos from 2017, 79 of which I rated 7.5 or higher (39%).

I’m almost done, because I know you want to get to the fricking list already, but I have a few disclaimers I want to make before we start. First, please remember that I’m one guy who loves AMVs. I’ve been around this scene for over ten years now, so I’ve seen a lot and my tastes don’t necessarily jive with the mainstream. Although there are several videos on here that could be considered as such, they’re probably the exception, rather than the rule. If you don’t like my list — excellent! I love hearing competing viewpoints and hope that you’ll post them here. But I don’t claim this list as definitive or anything of the sort — I’m just an AMV fan who loves sharing his opinions with the world.

Second — as far as I know, this is one of the only lists of this type out there. I know that seasons also does year-end AMV lists, but beyond that I don’t know of any others. If you like AMVs and lists, I’d encourage you to make your own — I personally would love to see more, especially because my audience is pretty limited and it’d be cool to see others with more reach get some of their favorites out there as well.

Third and finally, while there weren’t very many AMVs this year that were everywhere (or if there were, I was just blind I guess) that I didn’t include on my list here, there is one glaring omission that might raise a few eyebrows from people who know me: Moony Moonpie’s We Two. Although this was one of the most moving AMVs I saw this year and it won Best In Show at this year’s NDK contest, I don’t have very much to say about it that I didn’t already say about Tigrin’s Stay With Us last year (a video which had ended up at #3 on that list). Since the videos are so similar in their feeling, storytelling, and general presentation, it would have felt redundant to me to put it on this list and take up a spot that a more unique video might be able to fill. Please watch the video — it’s great — and then read my comments on the #3 video from last year’s list. They apply pretty much equally.

Ok — I’m done now. With all that said, let’s get started with the Top 50 AMVs from 2017!

50. UnluckyArtist – Complex Mechanisms

Anime: Evangelion
Song: “Evangelion” by Thundercat

This is not my favorite Evangelion video made this year; heck, it’s not even the most creative Evangelion video released this year, but it is quite unlike what you’re likely to come across with a typical video using this source. Utilizing a downtempo, psychedelic folk song, UnluckyArtist overlays the entire video with a texture filter that gives the video a unique look and feel. He makes use of color-manipulating transitions similar to those used in his masterpiece from 2016, Blithe and Bonny, although this time around they’re used with much more restraint. There’s abstract philosophizing, delicate atmosphere, and beautiful (but sparse) moments of beat sync. It all totals up to a laid-back, (mostly) non-violent, non-confrontational and visually singular Eva video, all of which sound like a contradiction in terms until you experience it for yourself.

49. E L F E N L I E D – 5 Centimeters Per Second

Anime: 5 Centimeters Per Second
Song: “Outro” by M83

Let me just start by ackowledging that this video has a lot of obvious problems, its title not least among them. It’s often sloppily edited, has several orphan frames, and is conceptually derivative (although given the source, that last point is rather minor). All that said, I still find myself enjoying this one immensely. It’s true that if you’ve seen one 5CPS video, you’ve seen 90% of them, and while this one definitely falls into that statistic, enough time has passed since the anime was released that this doesn’t feel like any sort of cash-in on something popular. One gets the distinct feeling that the editor made this video out of a love for the source — an approach I certainly admire.

But it’s more than that — this video feels huge and open. It explores the relationship between love and physical space, which is a theme in most of Makoto Shinkai’s work — and thus a lot of videos that use his work as well — but in here it’s done in a really unmistakable way. E L F E N L I E D takes shot after shot of expansive skies and vistas and plants them right next to scenes of the two main characters together, making it an impossible-to-avoid motif that’s right at home with M83’s “Outro”, a stirring, epic, sweeping song in its own right. The added-in rocket SFX near the beginning of the video contribute as well to this video’s grand scale, and hint at a conceptual framework. It all feels very large and significant.

Not every one of my favorite videos has to be perfect in every way; in fact, few actually are. This one is maybe more imperfect than most, but also serves as a striking example of how passion for what you’re editing and a tangible sense of atmosphere can make otherwise siazble flaws seem small in comparison.

48. Kroner – Deeper Connection

Anime: Puella Magi Madoka Magica The Movie // Puella Magi Madoka Magica The Movie // Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Battle Pentagram
Song: “Hunger In Your Haunt” by Crywolf

There’s nothing particularly new about this video — Madoka videos can run the gamut of genres but this one doesn’t bring anything to the table that I haven’t seen before. However, if there’s anything I’ve learned from doing these lists over the last few years, it’s that editors don’t always have to be innovating; sometimes doubling down on what they know they can do well is plenty. Deeper Connection is an artsy emotional drama piece that makes heavy use of the psychedelic and abstract imagery found in Madoka. Like many videos before it, it focuses (however loosely) on the connection between Madoka and Homura; and like many, it’s tragic and sad and…well, you know the drill. But it’s edited and paced very well, and belies the editor’s love for the source in its emotional pull — and such authenticity is always welcome these days in the AMV community.

47. ZephyrStar – Death Race Cydonia

Anime: REDLINE
Song: “Escape From The Prison Planet” by Clutch

I take some pride in knowing that after like two years of pestering ZephyrStar to release this, he finally did when I brought it up on an episode of Thank You Heavy Machine Gun that I was a guest on. This had been an AWA Pro entry in 2014’s contest, but ZS has a bad habit of not releasing stuff when it’s done — sometimes it takes years! (Case in point — a 7+(?) year old sequel to daydream that he was supposed to release two months ago…if we’re lucky it may be out by the time you’re reading this, but it’s too late for it to be on this list at any rate). It happens.

But anyway, the video. For an anime as limited as REDLINE tends to be as source material for AMVs, it’s kinda nice to have something that has such a specific narrative slant like this. The song is lyrically narrow, but ZS makes it work in all its sci-fi conspiracy-theory wackiness with REDLINE‘s over-the-top visuals. Lying somewhere between upbeat drama and slow action, the video is paced in a way that makes it easy to keep up with the story, while sacrificing very little intensity along the way. It’s a song I wouldn’t attempt to edit with in a million years, but ZS balances everything on a pinhead here to make something that’s fun, menacing, and blood-pumping all at once.

46. Cneq – Your Eyes

Anime: Mahoutsukai No Yome
Song: “Gold” by Echos

Cneq’s a rookie editor, and he released some pretty good stuff this year — although it’s all rough around the edges, his work tends to be drama-heavy and simple, which is right up my alley no matter the experience level, so I found a lot to love in his videos. Your Eyes has little more than an emotionally-dense song and some slick storytelling, but nothing more was really needed to make something worthwhile. The first third of this one is especially good, laying a wide foundation for character exploration that Cneq is able to develop pretty satisfactorily throughout the rest of the video’s run time; although this wasn’t his best work this year, it’s a good introduction to his style and a great drama video in its own right. This is certainly an editor to keep your eye on.

45. neko kitkat – Paint The Sky

Anime: Little Witch Academia // Little Witch Academia (Movie) // Little Witch Academia: The Enchanted Parade
Song: “Hold On” by Extreme Music

In 2016 aerialesque submitted a Little Witch Academia video to NDK, which I had the pleasure of seeing and voting for; unfortunately she has yet to officially release it despite my constant nagging, and while I have a copy on my HDD it would be crummy of me to upload it somewhere without her consent. So while we all wait for that video to be uploaded (it’s really, really good), neko kitkat has so kindly provided us with Paint The Sky, a deeply sentimental and uplifting video that revels in the simple and straightforward to make its statement. As ever, neko kitkat knows how to tell her stories and the narrative in Paint The Sky is easy to follow and invest in; really, there’s not much more to say. She nailed pretty much every element and continues to improve as an editor. She’s certainly come a far way from the editor I used to routinely ignore, and consistently makes some of the year’s most notable AMVs.

44. -DevilAMV- – Cold Skin

Anime: Houseki no Kuni
Song: “Cold Skin” by Seven Lions

-DevilAMV- is a Chinese editor, something I didn’t even know existed until I read his YouTube profile, and while an editor’s home country doesn’t really matter when it comes to what I think of their work, I just think it’s cool that AMVs are a thing in China, and wanted to point that out. Anyway. Cold Skin’s main attraction is in how incredibly smoothly it’s edited — this video goes down like butter, and although it’s short (clocking in at just under two minutes) it makes its point convincingly in the time allotted, without overdoing any element or showing off in any way. Short videos tend to be extreme in one way or another, but -DevilAMV- chooses instead to make something comparatively understated and, as a result, immensely more satisfying and rewatchable.

43. KazKon – V

Anime: Various
Song: “Be The One” by Moby

Fair warning — this is a weird video. I don’t quite understand the meaning behind it, or if it’s really just a bunch of angsty juxtapositions with no real significance (it can be hard to tell sometimes). But I don’t really care, it has great visual flow and this super dark atmosphere that manifests itself in many ways throughout its four minutes. Probably the best part of the video is smack in the middle, with a long sequence of similar scenes strung together from some very different anime; Nostromo did this in longform several years ago, but it’s a nice editing technique and works particularly well here. The only iffy part of the whole video is the text usage — thankfully it’s brief, and doesn’t really do much to rob the video of its momentum. I want more videos like this — those that fall outside the boundaries of “safe” and “predictable” and are willing to experiment with abstract concepts and questionable editing techniques. Even when they don’t work 100%, they’re a blast to watch.

42. UnluckyArtist – Thot Provoking Triple Bagel Backspins

Anime: Teekyu
Song: “Bad and Boujee (Nyanners Remix)” by Migos

I say it every year but in case this is your first time reading through one of my lists, I’m not big on comedy videos. I typically have one or two on my list each year, but in general I find comedy a really hard genre to get into in terms of considering any of them among my “favorites”. This entry is probably about as close to “comedy” as we got this year, and while I do chuckle at it here and there, mostly I like it because it’s just a ridiculous anime/song combo that works on a really shallow level. That’s not a criticism, because this video isn’t really supposed to be anything other than silly fun, and that’s exactly what it is — great lyric and lip sync, goofy scene selection, and not much else. But it doesn’t need a lot, because stuff like this is addicting in its own oddball way and UnluckyArtist, one of the most versatile editors out there right now, knows how to throw these curveballs perfectly.

41. Copycat_Revolver – Artichoke Hearts

Anime: Tamako Love Story // Tamako Market
Song: “Crabbuckit” by The Good Lovelies

Yep, we just started this list but we’re already at our first Copycat_Revolver video — stick around because this is the first of many. It’s also possibly the most “classic” feeling of all the videos he released this year, by which I mean that it feels most like the stuff he used to make a decade ago when he first appeared on the scene — clever and full of visual puns, lyrical jokes, and dead-on internal sync moments that flash by without waiting around for the viewer to catch on. Unlike most Tamako videos, this one doesn’t rely on any kind of sentimental response. It’s simply a good time, courtesy of one of the scene’s most consistent editors. There’s more where this came from, so stay tuned.

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2017 in retrospect: the best albums (non-k-pop)

I listened to plenty of non-K-pop this year — enough to make choosing my favorites fairly difficult. Unlike my K-pop lists, I’m not going to do an ordered list here. This is because my pool of good albums to choose from was quite a bit larger than my K-pop one was (and the albums tended to be on the longer side, making listening through them all to choose an order tricky from a time-management perspective); I also find that I feel a bit more out of my depth trying to say something meaningful about a lot of this stuff for whatever reason, and as such there are some albums that were definitely among my favorites that I simply won’t be mentioning below for lack of anything insightful to say (such as Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. or King Krule’s The OOZ — you have the entire Internet at your disposal to pick those apart). Rather, this is an unranked list of noteworthy albums that prompt responses in me that I feel are worth sharing. Hopefully there’ll be something in here that you haven’t heard before — I’d urge you to seek every one of these albums out at one point or another, but in case the stuff on here doesn’t satisfy you, there are more than enough other year end lists that will all be posting the same stuff over and over :) As a concession, though, I will post my 3 favorite albums from 2017, in order, at the end of this post. So, you know, for listheads, I guess you have that at least?

Oh, and no, I’m not doing a list of my favorite non-K-pop songs — I don’t think I have the mental fortitude to try and do that. Just go and crank up Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Cut To The Feeling”. There weren’t many songs that I liked better than that one this year.

Anyway…here we go!

[Note: I tried to provide a YouTube link to one song per album, just to provide a quick-and-easy reference for what some of this stuff sounds like, however Japan’s recording industry is notoriously backwards and tends to be strict on having their music put online, so for a couple of the Japanese albums below I wasn’t able to find anything…sorry!]

Wednesday Campanella – Superman

Genre(s): J-pop, Japanese hip hop, electropop, pop
nkp - wednesday campanella

Singer Koumai was recruited for Wednesday Campanella because of the contrast between her voice and the rap music that producer Kenmichi was making at the time they met — an odd recruiting tactic to be sure, but four years and six albums later, and they are the core of one of the most unique and refreshing J-pop groups on the scene right now. Mixing house elements with electropop with hip hop, they have a surprisingly solid discography, but Superman is probably their best release yet. Although it’s fashionable in some pretty obvious ways, it rarely feels like it’s trying to cash in on the current musical trends — mainly because Koumai’s voice is so far removed from what you’d normally find in similar groups in the J-pop or K-pop scenes. She has a very unrefined style — frequently off-key or off-rhythm, she counterbalances the immaculate production in a singular way that I’ve yet to hear from any other pop group.

As for the specifics of the album itself — it’s loaded with catchy bangers and hook-heavy sleeper hits. “坂本龍馬” features no rapping, but a sparkling electronic backing track buttresses Koumai’s idiosyncratic voice and builds the song into something much larger that itself — it turns into an immensely beautiful, dreamy song that is distinct from WC’s more typically rhythmic approach, but ends up being one of the album’s most memorable pieces. “世阿弥” builds for the first a minute into a monolithic wall of stuttering synth distortion; the last lines of the chorus, sung in two English words — “Yes, no! Yes, no!” — end up being one of the catchiest moments in Japanese music all year. The album’s highlight though, and the song I ended up returning to more than any other off of this album, is “チンギス・ハン”; Koumai raps the opening verses like they’re nothing before giving Kenmichi some breathing space with a short piano break, just before launching into a double-time rap over a trap beat that builds to this euphoric release of sunshiney pads. It’s about as close to a perfect pop song as I heard all year, smack dab in the middle of one of the best-constructed pop records from 2017.

LISTEN: “チンギス・ハン”

Alex Cameron – Forced Witness

Genre(s): Synthpop, sophisti-pop, new wave
nkp - alex cameron

The ’80s worship prevalent in pop music over the last several years has finally seemed to die down some as people are recognizing it less and less as an homage and more as the “current” sound, but someone either forgot to get Alex Cameron the memo or (more likely) his use of this style of pop music is an artistic choice. I’m banking on the latter.

Forced Witness is the antithesis of everything this style of music tends to portray — instead of suave, sweet-talking protagonists a la Walk The Moon or Destroyer, we get utter scumbags as our (anti-)heroes; scuzzy, disgusting men with heads full of little more than themselves and sex, who see women as objects and pretty much nothing else. It’s a fascinating perspective that is pretty much never explored in any serious way in pop music, and while a sly wink-and-nod sense of humor definitely pervades this album, it’s bold to make something built around such obviously despicable characters. The good thing is that Cameron never exactly condones anything he sings about, even as he takes on these characters’ personalities for their three-or-so-minute existences within these songs. There’s some biting commentary in here as well, especially on songs like “True Lies”, in which Cameron is a man in a relationship who is cheating with another lady over the Internet. His conscience surfaces here and there throughout the song, but he continues to give in, even knowing it could all be fake (the album’s most hilarious moment happens on this track: “Yeah there’s this woman on the Internet / Even if she’s some Nigerian guy / Yeah well you should read the poetry he speaks to me / I don’t care if they’re just beautiful lies”).

Through the lens of its antagonists and degenerates, Cameron highlights some of society’s biggest issues that we tend to be afraid to face head-on — homelessness, porn addiction, manipulative and abusive relationships — and seems to suggest that, even through the ugly outer shells, maybe these people are victims of something bigger than themselves. Even if they’re not, he contends, they’re flawed humans, like the rest of us. It can be hard to remember that sometimes, and while there’s no redemption for any of his characters in this album, Forced Witness never claims to be the end of the story.

LISTEN: “Runnin’ Outta Luck”

koducer – Ascending Sceneries

Genre(s): Jazz, jazz pop, piano
nkp - koducer
In 2014, koducer collaborated with Japanese rapper DAOKO to create a dreamy, breezy EP of breathy Japanese hip hop; while not my favorite album in this style, it was nice enough and so when I found out koducer was releasing an album in 2017, I was expecting something quite different from what I got. Instead of downbeat dream pop, he has instead decided to create an achingly pretty collection of instrumental piano tunes, often jazzy in nature, but just as often more pop-oriented. This is the kind of stuff that would probably be fantastic if set behind some vocals (koducer is a producer, after all, and it shows in the best way here), but it works surprisingly well on its own. This is an unabashedly uplifting album, full of open air and crisp light — “High Sky” stands out as a highlight, a skittering drumbeat punctuating a joyous, lilting piano line. There’s no real pathos to be found here, and it’s wonderful to just bask in the sunlight for once.

This is almost universally the type of music that just kind of bores me to death, so it should say a lot that I adore this album with every ounce of my being. It’s so easy to get swept away in its expansive skies and gorgeous vistas — it’s the aural equivalent of breathing cool air on a clear, cloudless morning with the sun almost blinding you as you look out across the landscape, full of possibility.

LISTEN: “Ascending Scenery”

Bleachers – Gone Now

Genre(s): Pop rock, new wave, synthpop
nkp - bleachers

This album could just be “Don’t Take The Money” 12 times and it’d probably still be on this list. That song is such an exhilarating conglomeration of everything that makes pop songs good — layered vocals, a chant-along pre-chorus, soaring emotion that lifts the whole song to an omniscient vantage point. While nothing else on Gone Now reaches quite those heights, it’s still a remarkably consistent album; according to Jack Antonoff, the album’s lyrics and themes were heavily influenced by the death of his sister, and how that event now acts as a kind of filter through which he views the world. Although not a concept album in the classic sense of the phrase, the album contains lyrical and musical motifs that run through the entire thing — the lyrics “Goodbye to the friends I have / Goodbye to my upstairs neighbor…” (or “Good morning”, depending on which song you’re listening to) repeat throughout the album, reflecting the tension between wanting to move on in a healthy sense vs. wanting to run away from everything. It’s a very bittersweet 40 minutes, to say the least.

Stylistically, Jack Antonoff has always worn his influences on his sleeve, and there’s plenty of that here too — the album borrows heavily from ’80s stadium rock like U2 and Bruce Springsteen (and he sounds distinctly like Bruce when he sings the lines “When all your heroes get tired / I’ll be something better yet” on the appropriately-titled “All My Heroes”). The artificial vocal echo on many of these songs may simply confirm his stadium aspirations, but it also makes him sound all the more isolated — a single voice in a huge, empty space doing all he can to make himself feel less lonely. It’s an effective mix of hero worship and catharsis — Antonoff reaching back to happier times, recalling his role models as a way to cope with loss and an unmistakable tinge of alienation, with the result being a modern pop album on a grand scale that feels many times more genuine than most.

LISTEN: “Everybody Lost Somebody”

Brand New – Science Fiction

Genre(s): Emo, indie rock, post-hardcore
nkp - brand new

It sucks that I have to basically immediately start my thoughts on this album on the defensive — Science Fiction is being blacklisted by many review publications this year due to Jesse Lacey’s alleged sexual misconduct 15 years ago. In a year rife with such allegations, none hit me harder than this one, as I found myself in the position that many people my age who grew up listening to emo music probably did: torn between hating the sin and loving the sinner (and the sinner’s music, in this case). I won’t go off on a whole rant about the toxic mentality that I feel surrounds these kinds of accusations, and the completely unrealistic black-and-white approach that society tends to adopt when confronted with them — made all the worse in this situation given that following the accusation Lacey issued a statement detailing a history of sex addiction, cheating on his wife, and voluntary rehabilitation, none of which is any of our business to begin with. But there’s no room for nuance in the public square, I guess.

Ok, sorry — I won’t go further here but suffice to say, I don’t want to dismiss Lacey or Brand New’s music out of hand because of this, especially because he’s done more to better himself since then, years before any of this came to light, than most people accused of similar things would ever willingly do after the fact. It’s not my place to forgive him (I wasn’t the one wronged, after all), but my love of Brand New’s music hasn’t really been affected, and after waiting eight years for this fricking album to be released, I just want to be able to enjoy it.

And I do. It’s similar in tone to their last two releases, although more reserved than most of the stuff off Daisy. It’s as characteristically dark and brooding as songs like “You Won’t Know” or “Noro” were, with heavy themes centering on spirituality, depression, and a longing to just be done. There are moments of light, though — in “Can’t Get It Out”, Lacey reveals his frustration with exclusively being associated with sadness: “Not just a manic depressive / Toting around my own cloud / I’ve got a positive message / Sometimes I can’t get it out”. These are more than counterbalanced, though, by Brand New’s usual dark shtick, which comprises the bulk of the album. In “Same Logic/Teeth”, Lacey explores the cyclic patterns that drive people deeper into their own heads; “137” mixes religious imagery with the horrors of nuclear war, suggesting that since we discovered how to do so, maybe we’re best just vaporizing ourselves; “Waste” basically documents Lacey’s desire to move on past Brand New, although it’s not clear that where he wants to go is any better. It’s an emo-infused, indie rock goodbye letter in which Lacey and crew get all their final philosophizing out in the open, leaving us with often obscure references to pick apart in the meantime: “Swallow the pitch that flows from the Earth” and “Deader than a Donner daughter” are both lines in “451”, for example. Chew on those for a while.

Brand New have been one of the most important bands in my collection, pretty much since I discovered them. I can’t count the ways that their music has influenced, helped, and spoken to me at various points in my life. I’m not a special case, either — if you do even minimal searching online, you’ll see thousands of people saying pretty much the exact same thing. Science Fiction is a fitting end to the group (as it’s been all but outright stated by the band that they won’t be releasing anything more after this one), but even take away the context and the album stands as one of the finest, most thought-provoking and understated rock records of the year.

LISTEN: “Lit Me Up”

Izumi Makura – 雪と砂

Genre(s): Japanese hip hop, trip hop, downtempo
nkp - izumi makura

Izumi Makura’s work is at the extreme end of what I would consider to be acquired taste. Her albums have a super hazy, unfocused feel that permeates every element — her beats are loose, the electronics minimal, and her vocals slip in and out of rhythm and tone with no warning. Her music has a very “bedroom production” feel, as if it was made on her laptop in the middle of the night while she sat in bed with the lights off and her headphones on. There’s something very intimate about her work that is absent in almost every other form of hip hop that I’ve heard. It’s more emotive, quieter, more comforting, not at all confrontational or harsh.

雪と砂 (Yuki To Suna) feels slightly slicker than her previous albums, but it loses none of its warmth in the process. It retains all of the downbeat atmosphere that defines her best work, although bang in the middle of the album is also one of her most surprising (and best) tracks. “Call It Love” features not only a guest rapper (a first for Izumi), but a towering chorus hook that turns the song into what could almost be called a single, a concept that’s pretty foreign to Izumi’s whole aesthetic. The rest of the album stays in less bombastic territory, but if Izumi is good at anything, it’s demonstrating that whispers just prompt everyone else to shut up and listen closer.

Ross From Friends – Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes

Genre(s): Lo-fi house, outsider house, house, microhouse
nkp - ross from friends

There are a lot of opinions out there about lo-fi house; it’s an extremely divisive genre within electronic music, some people praising it for its vintage-worship sound, others claiming that it’s a gimmick that’s run its course. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid the talk, or are simply not familiar with the trends in electronic music, lo-fi house is basically house-via-vaporwave — vinyl pops, tape hiss and all. As the name would imply it often sounds like it’s coming from an old radio; the irony that YouTube and digital streaming contributed directly to the rise of lo-fi house artists is certainly not lost on them. Personally, I’m fond of this type of music in small doses. DJ Seinfeld released his first full-length album earlier this year, Time Spent Away From U, and listening through the entire thing made me realize that there is actually a limit to how enjoyable this stuff can be. It’s not a very diverse sound, so short EPs like Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes are typically the best vehicles for delivering it.

The opening track “In An Emergency” is immediately engaging, not bothering to do any slow lead-ins or sound layering, instead starting with a 140 bpm kick, double-time hi-hats and a slightly distorted “Oooh” vocal sample that meanders its way through to the end. The rhythmic switch-ups that RFF constantly throws out through the track’s 5:20 run give this song an off-kilter feel, while the synths envelop the whole thing in a warm, comforting melody. Lo-fi house tends to have a very inviting, intimate aura, and this track represents that in as clear a way as the hazy beats allow. “Crystal Catcher (weed)” is a more chaotic track, with cut-up vocal samples scattered over the subterranean bass drum. There’s a lot going on in this one, and it always feels on the verge of spinning apart — it’s full of tension coming from all directions, a feeling that’s somewhat unique to the genre.

There are no weak tracks here. “XOXOXO” and “Donny Blew It”, the other two, are equally good and solidify this EP as one worth hearing, especially if you have yet to make up your mind about lo-fi house. It’s true that, much like vaporwave, the genre has the potential to become a meme and collapse under the weight of its own ironic approach to music. Nostalgia can only work as a selling point for so long before it’s no longer nostalgic — and when that element disappears, what were once assets become flaws. Lo-fi house probably won’t have much currency in a few years, so soak it in now before it becomes a footnote in the oh-so-storied history of electronic music.

LISTEN: “In An Emergency”

SHISHAMO – SHISHAMO 4

Genre(s): J-pop, J-rock, indie pop, pop rock
nkp - shishamo

A lot of the time, all I ask of Japanese music is to appeal to my weeb fantasies about living in Japan and walking through the suburban streets on a warm summer evening, like in all the slice-of-life anime I love to watch. I’ve found that this is actually harder for most J-pop/J-rock to accomplish than you might imagine, which leads me to believe that maybe there’s something else at play in regards to what I look for with this stuff. All I know is that SHISHAMO are one of the few J-whatever bands who have consistently embodied more or less the exact sound I need when I get the craving to escape into my anime worlds without actually, you know, watching anime.

This is a beautifully lush album — guitar pop often backed by live horns set beneath lead singer Miyazaki Asako’s strong vocals. (Seriously, an aside here — she has one of the absolute best voices I’ve heard yet in Japanese music, resting in the range of most female Japanese singers but not nasally or cutesy or gimmicky, and often displaying this really pleasing natural vibrato. She sounds very much like herself, to use a really tacky turn of phrase.) The arrangements are full to bursting, and the result is song after song of catchy, exultant pop tinged at the corners with hints of melancholy. The way Miyazaki stretches out her voice in songs like “Koi” and “Natsuno Koibito” are swoon-worthy counterweights to the more upbeat rock numbers like “Suki Suki!” and “Owari”, but it almost wouldn’t matter — SHISHAMO can really do no wrong no matter the tempo. It all sounds good.

SHISHAMO 4 fits neatly into the band’s discography, and while it doesn’t sound functionally different from pretty much anything else they’ve released thus far, I feel like there might be something to be said for consistency. There’s plenty of risky, weird, and unique Japanese music out there, but SHISHAMO don’t have any need for it. What they craft is some of the coziest and most evocative J-pop on the market, and there’s nothing more I’ll ever ask or want of them.

TOP 3
3. Iglooghost – Neō Wax Bloom

Genre(s): Wonky, UK bass, glitch hop
nkp - iglooghost

You find yourself in a pink-tinted world where the usual laws of reality don’t seem to apply. Exaggerated figures and shapes rush past at such a speed that you can only make out vague imprints before the next thing grabs your attention. Voices invade your consciousness but they don’t say anything that makes sense. You want to scrutinize this place, but it’s always shifting its size and shape, constantly moving and trying to throw off your balance. There are cartoonish characters who flit in and out of the scenery, but none of them seem to notice or care that you’re there. Finding out this is all a bad trip would come as a relief, but no, this is a weird reality that you are now a part of. This is Neō Wax Bloom.

This album sounds like nothing I can say I’ve ever listened to before. It’s the product of a hyperactive imagination cranked up to 11 on 2-liter bottles of Mountain Dew. It’s full of weird sounds and pitched-up vocal samples, sped up to 300+% while bass and synths bounce around without any heed for musical structure. According to the Wikipedia entry (an entertaining read in itself), Iglooghost didn’t use any loops when creating this album — and it shows. The album manages to sound cohesive, yet it’s the difference between something feeling manufactured and crafted. This is a lovingly composed work, custom-made and meticulously arranged. Trying to follow its thread can be exhausting as it doubles back around on itself over and over, but half of the fun of experiencing Neō Wax Bloom is untangling those threads.

It’s endlessly replayable and impassively defiant to simple genre classification — pop music put through a meat grinder and then glued back together in an intentionally different pattern than it was before. It’s informed by all sorts of different types of music — wonky, bass, IDM, hip hop, art pop, J-pop — but doesn’t fall neatly into any single category. Even the recognizable elements are immediately fleeting and impressionist. It’s strange and enthralling, exhausting and vaguely unsettling. It’s also some of the most forward-thinking electronic music I’ve heard in recent memory, and something that by its very nature renders it unlikely to be imitated in any meaningful way anytime soon. No other electronic music from this year was as enthralling to me as Neō Wax Bloom.

LISTEN: “Sōlar Blade”

2. Seiko Oomori – Kitixxxgaia

Genre(s): Art pop, J-pop, J-rock, electropop, pop
nkp - seiko oomori

I fell in love with Seiko Oomori’s work last year as I was going through my J-pop phase; to me it represented everything that made Japanese pop music so interesting and different from Western pop. Sennou still stands as one of the monuments in pop music that may never be toppled — a full-bodied, warped and twisted middle finger to the establishment of tried and true patterns that one can’t escape in mainstream music scenes the world over. It’s sarcastic and confrontational, untamed and subversive, a hard slap in the face to anyone who thinks they have pop music figured out. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Kitixxxgaia continues in the same direction forged by Sennou, but widening out, absorbing more, expanding its sound to dismantle more genres, more classifications and monikers and labels to become something just as abrasive and perhaps even more universal.

Kitixxxgaia sounds like a lot of things — the neon electropop of “IDOL SONG”, the jazzy cabaret of “地球最後のふたり”, the epic melodramatic rock of “POSITIVE STRESS” — and yet it’s hard to trace any one of these songs back to a single overriding influence. It’s all fused together into a chaotic mess that pulses and writhes at Seiko’s command. And while she doesn’t have the most, let’s say, appealing voice in the industry, part of what makes Seiko’s music so remarkable is the way she’s able to twist and mold her voice into whatever shape the music happens to take at any given time. She shrieks, she howls, she purrs, she verges on the edge of emotional breakdown — whatever is required of her, she can do, and although it’s always rough and brittle, it keeps her music from becoming too immediately likable — you have to work at this.

As she’s always done, with Kitixxxgaia Seiko Oomori is challenging the notion of “pop”, pushing the boundaries into territories they were probably never meant to go. Depending on your disposition, this may be the most inaccessible album on this list. Seiko doesn’t care about your tastes (the songs rarely fall into simple categories), she doesn’t care about your time (songs often go over the five-minute mark), she doesn’t care about you. Listening to Kitixxxgaia can be a taxing experience, but it’s also one of the most rewarding things I discovered all year.

LISTEN: “ドグマ・マグマ (Dogma・Magma)”

1. Gang of Youths – Go Farther In Lightness

Genre(s): Indie rock, heartland rock
nkp - gang of youths

Rock music and I have been on the outs the past few years. It’s nothing personal, really, it’s just that I’ve been much more drawn to more electronic-influenced music — house, techno, J-pop, K-pop, synthpop…probably lots of other “-pops” as well — and it’s become, well, boring, I guess. Indie rock sold out its sound to stadiums years ago, and most current so-called “alternative” music is getting more and more electronic every day. Ironically, the further we move from LCD Soundsystem’s self-titled release, the more James Murphy’s line in “Losing My Edge” seems prophetic: “I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables”. Maybe I’ve just been trying to get ahead of the curve for once in my life, I don’t know.

What I do know is that Go Farther In Lightness is, bar none, the most thrilling rock record I’ve heard in years. So much of the music that I’ve listened to in the realm of rock recently is either lacking in passion or feigning it; with this release, Gang of Youths dole it out in spades. Their style borrows heavily from classic heartland rock — these guys worship Springsteen and don’t bother to hide it, which is obvious from the opening seconds of “Fear and Trembling”, a “Thunder Road” homage if I’ve ever heard one — while making it a wholly 2010s affair, bringing in chamber elements to round out their sound into something extraordinarily rich, and all the more appealing.

This is a long record (clocking in at 77 minutes, this is by far the longest album represented here), and they use the album’s incredible length to explore love, philosophy, spirituality — all perfectly common subjects for anyone with a guitar in their 20s or 30s to write songs about, sure, but Gang of Youths approach these subjects with a deep reverence that transforms their songs into something more than simple 4-minute musical diary entries. They’re loaded with confessional vignettes; lead singer Dave Le’aupepe takes on the role of multiple characters, often in the midst of spiritual or mental crises, and gives them a voice. In “What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out?”, he seeks God but fears silence on the other end as punishment for having lost the passion that he once had in his faith. In “Achilles Come Down” he gets inside the mind of a suicidal Achilles, the song ending with a layered back-and-forth good angel/bad angel dialogue. In “Do Not Let Your Spirit Wane” he describes a recurring nightmare he has of having a perfect life and feeling unworthy, drinking it away in his basement while his dream wife and child run out to do some errands and die in a car accident.

The band has this uncanny ability to make every one of these mini-stories feel concrete and larger-than-life. They’re all quite accomplished musicians and the songs are full to bursting with blinding light and lush sound. There’s enough pop sensibility here with songs like “Let Me Down Easy”, which carries a steady, upbeat cadence, strings, and and an incredibly catchy sing-along chorus, to keep this album exhilarating even late in its 16-song run, but this is a rock record to its very core. The difference is that all the drugs and sex in the world wouldn’t keep Le’aupepe and his bandmates from philosophizing on what it’s all for, where we’re going, and why. It’s been a long time, but I think I’m ready to love rock music again.

LISTEN: “Atlas Drowned”

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2017 in retrospect: the best k-pop albums

Navigating through the K-pop landscape has been difficult for someone like me, with a background in music more focused on the album as the primary vehicle for a group to collect and release their work. It doesn’t take long to realize that this isn’t how K-pop works — albums are centered tightly around one or two singles, with the rest being often passable but ultimately forgettable filler. Although pop music in general has operated this way for just about as long as pop groups have been around, K-pop seems to take this approach to gross extremes. Idol groups will release something — a single, an EP (often termed “mini-album”), whatever — and then go into radio silence for a couple months or more before making their “comeback”, usually preceded by weeks of hype and teaser images or video clips. The comeback itself is usually a single and accompanying high-quality music video release, sometimes with the singer/group debuting a new “concept” (aesthetic direction) that they will be parading around for the foreseeable future.

(If this all seems calculating and faintly manipulative, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The K-pop subculture is full of stuff like this.)

Because of the highly controlled, cyclic path that your standard K-pop artist will take, album releases, while anticipated, are often less of a big deal than the singles which perpetuate the cycle. The albums themselves tend to have several common elements, as well — a K-pop album/mini-album will rarely be longer than about 35 minutes. They also tend to be blatantly front-loaded. The lead single is often the first or second track, and most of the other “strong” songs on a given album are in the album’s first half. The second half is usually reserved for more obviously filler tracks; listening to a K-pop album front-to-back is typically a very uneven experience. Also, especially with idol groups, there will usually be one or two party-ready bangers, with at least one slow ballad thrown in as well.

What this means is that K-pop albums, more often than not, lack the kind of depth that I enjoy finding in more album-oriented, holistic releases found in other genres. They tend to be extremely formulaic in their arrangement and general disbursement of content. There are rarely the themes or motifs in K-pop that help to define many of my all-time favorite albums, for example. K-pop simply feels (and is meant to be) more disposable and more playlist-oriented, and it shows in its approach to the album format, among other things.

That said, there are always exceptions. Many of this year’s releases were able to overcome the generally album-agnostic approach that typifies the genre, and I actually came across plenty of K-pop releases this year that were able to satisfy my desire for something more than the superficial front put on by many K-pop acts. Although several of the following albums are just pure pop goodness that hit my pleasure buttons, plenty more cracked the code and are wonderful, stand-alone releases that are enjoyable for more meaningful reasons. Although I’m sure no best-of list could satisfy any single diehard K-pop fan (and this one certainly won’t, as I can think of many albums that were being praised in K-pop circles that simply didn’t click with me), these are my 15 favorite K-pop albums from 2017. Enjoy!

[As a quick aside — if you’re not familiar with much K-pop, it is a heavily viral scene. Its massive popularity is due in no small part to YouTube, and South Korean labels and recording companies seem to be very unconcerned with fans uploading songs and albums to YouTube because they’re, well, smart and recognize the revenue such laxness brings them in other ways. Thus, literally all of the below albums can be found on YouTube in their entirety, if your interest is piqued to that degree ;)]

HONORABLE MENTIONS
Red Velvet – The Red Summer
EXO – The War
Monsta X – The Code

Look — I love each of these three albums, and it pains me to leave them off this list (especially The War). But when it comes down to it, the issue with each of them is the same — they don’t forge any new ground, and they don’t stand out above the rest of the albums I’m about to list. If you’re new to K-pop, though, I would heartily recommend any one of these albums as a great entry point — they each do what they do well enough, and it’s usually better to work your way up to the best, rather than starting there. None of these albums disappoint, and it only gets better from here.

15. BTOB – Brother Act.

15 - BTOBGetting into K-pop was a process for me, not something that happened immediately. One of the highest barriers to entry for me was the fact that it just tends to sound so produced, so planned, so controlled and sterile. For a long time, I couldn’t see the group in my mind’s eye when I listened to most K-pop, only the team of producers, managers, and suits that constructed the music, sitting behind the studio glass and watching a bunch of faceless guys or girls sing and dance while they smiled to themselves, thinking of all the money they’re going to be making off of said group’s hard work.

To an extent, I still see this, but now it’s out of choice so that I don’t forget that side of it, because it’s definitely a part of the industry that’s easy to lose sight of when you start to really like the music. And I don’t want to discount the fact that there is a lot of artistry at work in the music being produced — we’ll get to some of those albums later, but Brother Act. certainly isn’t one of them. For all intents and purposes it is a quintessentially K-pop boyband release, producers and businessmen and all, but it excels in ways that just make it more enjoyable than the rest. It’s also more varied in its sound than a lot of other similar releases; while it has its share of the predictable, it also gets sonically experimental (for K-pop) from time to time — the drum’n’bass-infused “Guitar (Stroke of Love)” is a nice break from K-pop’s usual four-to-the-floor rhythms, and “Nanana” has some of the best vocal harmonizing I heard all year. It’s a fun album, to be sure, and proof that within the confines of standard pop are the tools to make stuff that can still stand out.

14. TWICE – Twicetagram

14 - twiceIt’s actually harder than you might think to find a K-pop album that’s truly bad — according to my RateYourMusic account I’ve listened to some 150+ albums and there are very few that I’ve rated lower than a 2/5. And this makes sense to me — I usually remember the truly awful stuff I listen to, but no K-pop comes to mind when I think about it. It’s often trite, and formulaic, and girl groups tend to get the worst of it — they all tend to sound very similar, fronted by interchangeable, anonymous girls who conform to the “cute/sexy girl” stereotype. As a whole, these groups usually have little personality, or anything that defines them.

It pains me to say that TWICE actually don’t really stand out from the rest in any real, meaningful way, besides the fact that they just do what everyone else does a bit better. “Likey” is the obvious takeaway from this album, but there are plenty of other pop gems sprinkled throughout — the bass line on the chorus of “Rollin'” is one of the album’s highlights, and every upbeat track here is pretty much a straight-up good time (the chants on “FFW” are hard proof that the producers responsible for this album know exactly what it takes to make some of the best earworms in all of pop). TWICE may suffer from being “another girl group” in a genre that is oversaturated with the same concepts, the same voices, the same tempos and production tricks that cause so many outsiders to write it off, but every generation has to have their queens — and TWICE can fit that role better than any other girl group on the scene right now.

13. EXID – Eclipse

13 - exidEXID are a group that has yet to release something I don’t like. They’re not as big as a lot of other girl groups, their style tends to be more subtle, and while no less pop-oriented than any other given K-pop group, the fact that “Boy” is the opening track for this EP says something about their desire to be enjoyed for more than just the usual reasons. Eclipse is a patchwork of unorthodox sounds — the heavily modulated vocals in “Boy” and “Velvet”, the horns in “Night Rather Than Day”, singer LE’s throaty, raspy voice…it’s easy to think sometimes that this shouldn’t be as cohesive as it is, and yet the result is this engrossing, nocturnal pop music that deserves way more than the 20 minutes this EP lends it.

Oh, and “How Why” has one of the best synth hooks I heard all year when that chorus crashes down. Crank that song up and lose yourself in the album’s one moment of dance-y, hands-in-the-air, sing-along break-up catharsis.

12. Mamamoo – Purple

12 - mamamooOne reason I think I tend to prefer boy groups to girl groups in K-pop is that vocally they’re just more interesting, and varied; if you pick a girl group at random, the chances are very high that the singers are going to have very interchangeable voices, not just between themselves but between other girl groups. They all tend to meld together into a bubblegummy mess that, while it doesn’t prevent them from making some really great pop music, usually prevents the group as a whole from being recognizable outside of a few key songs.

Mamamoo expressly does not have this problem; their two standout singers, Solar and Whee-In, are deep and massive pools of rich vocal expression. They both remind me, in some ways, of Adele — not so much in how they sound, but in the way that they subvert the expected pop conventions and bring so much more power to their songs, that with other voices would be instead accomplished behind a mixing board. Purple continues the trends found in earlier Mamamoo releases, with their more jazzy, live-instrument approach. It’s playful and forceful music all at once, centered around the heavily dance-pop “Finally” and sarcastic “Age Gag”. As with every Mamamoo release, though, the outstanding vocals are what make the music worth listening to — pipes this good come along very rarely for female-fronted K-pop groups, so take notice.

11. pH-1 – The Island Kid

11 - ph-1Much as I love the genre, K-pop can be tiring to listen to on the best of days — its saving grace is that I don’t know the language, so at the very least I’m not subjected to probably-repetitive lyrics about love and longing and how beautiful that one girl is. I stumbled across pH-1 entirely by accident, so going into listening to The Island Kid I knew literally nothing about him. Ironically, the thing that drew me into his music was an English lyric on the opening song, “Christ”: “I hope that God can really use me / Of all the talents of his choosing / He signed me up for this music / And I hope that I can really use it / For the kingdom / For the glory”. This is so antithetical to typical K-pop subject matter that when I first heard this I was so taken aback that I wasn’t really sure I had heard it right at all.

I don’t mind shallow lyrics, necessarily — the fact that I consider TWICE’s “Likey” my favorite K-pop song from 2017 should be proof enough of that. But hearing a proclamation of faith in a K-pop song is not something I can say I’ve ever heard before, and I don’t know if it even exists anywhere else. As a Christian I always love hearing this kind of stuff in unexpected places, and although most of this album isn’t all as lyrically surprising as “Christ”, pH-1 makes up for it in other ways, with nice guest spots and slick rapping. Mostly R&B-oriented, The Island Kid goes down as smooth as more accomplished K-pop artists that take the same approach, and at just over 20 minutes it’s a wonderful, bite-sized bit of fresh air that’s perfect for those times when I’m feeling the staleness start to set in.

10. Zico – Television

10 - zicoLike I mentioned yesterday, Zico isn’t the most immediately charismatic rap artist on the scene. He doesn’t have a great voice, nor the sense of flow or rhythm that more capable artists do. But there’s just such an authenticity to his work and it bleeds through every song on here. The appropriately-titled “Behind The Scenes” details Zico’s creative process; the unusually catchy “Artist” features a double-take turn of phrase in “Life is short, art is long”; “ANTI” has already been discussed; and “She’s A Baby”, despite reinforcing the fact that Zico is not a singer, delves into downtempo, experimental territory, and ends up being one of the most interesting tracks on the album (if not necessarily one of my favorites).

In Television, you can hear Zico’s relative inexperience. Despite being a member of Block B since 2011 and having released a solo album in 2015, he sounds out of his depth more often than not, and it speaks volumes that since his debut album he’s surrounded himself with guest spots on almost every track — but it’s obvious to me that he’s pushing himself and trying things that are genuinely fascinating. The comparison to G-Dragon I made yesterday is more than a superficial one — he has the same imaginative force that drove GD to the top, and because he’s on a smaller label he’s not bound by the limitations many other solo artists face, so he’s able to try out his ideas. There’s a deep artistry and sense of excitement in his work, and I’m looking forward to seeing where he goes from here. For now, Television is a weird and completely unrefined release, but it’s bursting with creativity and that’s sadly something that can be difficult to find in K-pop.

9. ODD EYE CIRCLE – Max & Match

9 - odd eye circleLOONA’s prolonged, 18-month reveal until their 2018 debut has been an ambitious experiment, to say the least. Every 1-2 months over the last year or so, Blockberry Creative has debuted one member of the 12-member group, along with a music video and short EP for each girl. There have also been two sub-units that have released music (one being the oh-so-creatively-named LOONA 1/3, the other is ODD EYE CIRCLE), and if what’s been released so far is anything to go by, we’ve got a lot to look forward to with LOONA’s actual, official debut.

Max & Match is a collection of spacey, mid-tempo synthpop that doesn’t do anything too far outside the prescribed norms, and yet still manages to feel special. The girls of OEC all have phenomenal voices (listen to Jinsoul on “Chaotic”, holy crap), and the production is stellar — it’s a very warm listen, full of hooks (those “Ooooh”s on “Girl Front”) and dreamy vocal layering (“LOONATIC”). There’s not a weak song on the whole thing and as far as pure pop goes, no girl group did it better this year.

8. Bobby – Love and Fall

8 - bobbyWhen you listen to K-pop, you have to put up with a certain amount of preening — you eventually get used to it, but this was another hurdle I encountered when I first started exploring the genre. Image is everything in K-pop, and while I usually love K-pop videos (the worst K-pop MV is still probably better than most of the “best” Western music videos), the singers tend to be fairly expressionless, which I’m told is a cultural thing. It’s to Bobby’s credit, then, that even though he embodies that trendy thug look pretty completely (although let’s be honest, he kinda pulls it off), in the music video for “Runaway” we get to see him actually expressing emotion in a way that makes sense with the song. I mean, in a lot of contexts this is like praising a 12 year old for coloring inside the lines, but if you’re unfamiliar with K-pop you don’t know how common the “blank sexy look” is in its MVs, and how utterly annoying it can be to see it yet again.

But that’s tangential to the topic at hand. Love and Fall itself is somewhat standard fare for this kind of approach — R&B/hip hop fusion about expressing love in the suavest way possible — but man does Bobby have a good voice, and his versatility puts pretty much every other male K-pop star to shame. He doesn’t have the smoothest vocals in K-pop (that award probably goes to Jonghyun), but really that’s what makes this album so magnetic. “Tendae”, for instance, has Bobby putting one of his catchiest and smoothest choruses next to raspy rapping and “Up” has him doing vocal gymnastics alongside Mino in the album’s heaviest cut. The sum total of Love and Fall is a bulletproof collection of pop gems, and his immediately recognizable voice places him floors above his peers.

7. Taeyeon – My Voice

7 - taeyeonTaeyeon has a long history in K-pop; as one of the members of Girls’ Generation, she was at the forefront of the Korean Wave that broke upon Western shores in a big way around the turn of the decade, and so played (however minor) a part in my own discovery of the stuff. She has a fairly deep library of solo releases — singles, EPs, collaborations and the like — but from that which I’ve listened to, pretty much the only thing that ever caught my ear was “Why”, a pretty standard housey pop song with this beautiful moment where the music cuts out and all that’s left is Taeyeon’s silky voice trilling the word “…youuu” in this moment of smile-inducing aural perfection. My Voice is Taeyeon’s first actual full-length album released in her many years of solo work, and I put off listening to it for a long time this year because of my lukewarm experience with her other stuff.

Well, we all make mistakes, I guess.

It’s an appropriately-titled album, putting Taeyeon’s powerful vocals at the center and building lovely pop vignettes around it. It’s a stylistic patchwork; upbeat dance-pop (“Cover Up”) sits across from trappy art-pop (“I Got Love”), while a horn-infused kiss-off (“I’m OK”) parades in the background. There are acoustic guitars (“Fire”) and pianos (“Love In Color”). Every song brings something different to the table, but it’s Taeyeon’s voice that ties everything together into a rich tapestry. Not everyone would be able to make these songs work in the context of a greater whole, but I suppose if anyone could, it’s Taeyeon.

6. KARD – You & Me

6 - kardKARD are a bit of an outlier. Their success has come mainly internationally — they are wildly popular in places like South America but decidedly overshadowed back home. Their debut single “Oh NaNa” was perhaps one of the best debuts by a K-pop group ever (in this fan’s humble opinion), but their follow-ups “Don’t Recall” and “Rumour” both felt like blatant retreads, trying to recapture the magic of that first single. I’ve seen them panned by many a K-pop fan for refusing to climb out of the tropical house hole they dug themselves into with these songs, and their first mini-album Hola Hola certainly didn’t bring anything new to the table. Even though I enjoyed that release, I can’t in good conscience claim that it was anything other than “safe”. So when I saw that they had released a second mini-album this year, I approached it with considerable trepidation.

You & Me ditches the tropical house sound they built their fame on almost entirely for something much darker, much more emotional, and substantially more cohesive. While KARD’s status as an idol group with both male and female members probably accounts for their relative unpopularity in South Korea (labels just don’t know how to market such groups well), it also allows them a great deal of freedom to explore concepts and themes in their work that other groups simply can’t, and this ends up being You & Me‘s greatest asset. There’s a tension that permeates this album that’s absent in other K-pop releases, thanks in large part to the male/female dichotomy.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the two very different renditions of “Trust Me”, one featuring only J.Seph and Jiwoo, the other with BM and Somin. The songs feature similar lyrics but completely different musical approaches. Both are emotionally charged to the bursting point, the lovers in each trying to overcome a lack of trust between them in their own individual ways. These are pivotal moments on an album full of peaks — the lead single “You In Me”, for example, falls back slightly on the tropical elements but turns off the lights completely, and accompanies a haunting music video that gives an unexpected spin to the lyrics “I’m calling out to you / But you don’t answer”.

You & Me is one of my favorite albums of the year. It’s a sharp and needed turn off of the path they were headed down, and breathes new life into a group that were fast on their way to becoming one-hit-wonders. More than that, though, it’s a dive into little-explored territory in K-pop, investigating the dark corners of relationships that most K-pop singers never get far enough to examine themselves. It feels more serious and foreboding than most of the stuff that comes out of the scene, and it’s an exciting new direction for a group that has a lot of potential to make waves…if they’re ever given the opportunity.

5. IU – Palette

5 - iuPalette was, on my first listen, an incredibly boring and forgettable release. I don’t remember what exactly I was expecting, but I think I was hoping for something poppier, more striking somehow. I shelved it and basically forgot about it until close to the end of the year; in between I did a lot more exploring, listened to a lot more K-pop specifically, and was getting close to reaching a saturation point. I eventually found my way back to Palette through the less-bombastic avenues of more R&B-based artists, and when I finally listened to it again it was with new eyes, new ears, and a completely different mindset.

The thing about this album is that it’s quiet. Although certainly a pop album at heart, the bulk of the songs on here are ballads featuring little more than IU and a piano or acoustic guitar. Even the more fleshed out tracks — “Palette” and “Jam Jam”, for example — sound like stripped-down versions of something that was once much larger and more imposing. On this release, IU trimmed away every unnecessary piece, leaving only the essentials. It’s an incredibly emotional album at nearly every turn, even moreso if you read translations of the lyrics — the imagery in the closing track, “Dear Name”, provides an elegant example: “I know your name that has silently been forgotten / I won’t stop, I’ll shout out several times / Even if you’re so far that I can’t believe it / Let’s go, to the place at the tip of dawn”. The album is rife with stuff like this, and even if you choose not to read the translations, IU’s vocal delivery is typically enough to convey the ideas.

It’s just such an achingly pretty album, especially when you place it against most of the other stuff on this list. It may even require that very context to get the most out of it, I don’t know. There’s plenty of emotion to be found in K-pop, but the problem is that most of it feels manufactured. Straight-up, it doesn’t feel that way here. It may be — who knows? — but if it is it’s so hidden within IU’s gorgeous voice and the stunning arrangements that I don’t care. I’ll happily get sucked into this world of heart-on-sleeve balladeering again and again until the end of time.

4. BTS – Love Yourself 承 ‘Her’

4 - btsIt drives my wife nuts that I tend to prefer to listen to my music in album format — playlists are typically not my go-to method for filtering my music, so when I started to get into K-pop one of the things that I think she probably really appreciated was my willingness to create and listen through playlists. The entire genre is tailored this way, as I already alluded to in my introduction. So it should suggest something hopefully significant about Love Yourself 承 ‘Her’ that I can’t cherry-pick songs from this one. If I want to listen to anything off of it, I need to listen to the whole thing. It’s just that good.

BTS have become internationally recognized in the space of the last year; anyone with their ear to the ground of American pop music has probably heard or read those three letters in sequence at at least one point in the past few months. They were hyped up beyond belief for their performance at the 2017 AMAs (and boy, did they deliver), collaborated with Steve Aoki, and hit the Billboard Top 200 with the release of this album. It remains to be seen how much they’ll be able to capitalize on the momentum, but for the time being, it’s good to be a BTS fan.

There’s no one thing that makes Love Yourself such an appealing album, because it simply does everything well — the production values are through the roof on this thing, for example, especially on the more subtle elements of songs like “DNA” or “dimple”, with background sounds and vocal samples that add heat to already-fire pop diamonds. This album also has a wonderfully democratic approach — each of the group’s seven members gets equal mic time (look at the even distribution of colors on this color-coded lyric sheet for “GoGo”), and I feel like BTS does a better job in general of channeling their individual personalities through their music than a lot of other like-minded boybands do. Perhaps most immediately, though, this album is just one scorcher after another. It burns its choruses, its hooks, its beats into your brain in a way that almost no other album on this list does. It begs to be re-listened to, danced to, cranked up with the windows down. It’s hopelessly “now” in the best way possible, and something I will be obstinately unashamed of blasting the second someone asks me why I listen to “that Korean music”.

3. offonoff – boy.

3 - offonoffAny discussion of K-pop tends to focus on its star acts — individuals or groups who are groomed from a young age to perform and create music and be the face of South Korea to the rest of the world. This is not to discount these artists’ abilities or output (hopefully the content of this list makes that painfully obvious), but sometimes it can be easy to forget that, just like any music scene, not every artist is in the limelight. The duo who go under the moniker offonoff are on the perimeters of the scene, producing smokey ambient R&B and getting comparatively little attention; their single “gold” only has 950,000 views on YouTube since it was released in July — which seems like a big number until you realize that BTS’ “DNA” reached 100 million views in less than a month, and that record has since been broken by TWICE. Now granted, BTS and TWICE are some of the most popular K-pop groups out there right now, but if popularity is a sliding scale, then offonoff is certainly on the low end.

It’s not terribly hard to see why — their music isn’t danceable or infectious in the same way as most other K-pop. It thrives in haze and blurred vision and understatement. It’s informed by hip hop culture but not bound by it. While “gold” is full of the swagger and braggadocio one comes to expect from this type of music, songs like “homeless door” reveal something deeper and more introspective (“I just want to have even your heart / I want to know everything”); and the slow-motion closer “Overthinking” chronicles a night walk for the singer to clear his head of his thoughts, with the result being only that he crowds it with more, before the song dissolves into a three-minute wall of ambient synths. The whole album espouses this incredibly chill, eyes-half-open demeanor full of atmosphere, and just goes to show that when the lights aren’t shining on them, talented artists can still make beautiful music out of the darkness and dust.

2. Jonghyun – 소품집: 이야기 Op.2

2 - jonghyunHindsight’s a killer, and three weeks can change everything. I first listened through this album just over a month ago, at the end of November, and I was blown away by it — Jonghyun’s liquid smooth voice is probably the most sublime in all of K-pop, at least of what I’ve heard, and the downtempo R&B that makes up most of this album was a welcome respite for me in much the same way that Palette was — calm, relaxing, and deeply emotive. It was a record to get absolutely lost in and overwhelmed by.

Then, on December 18th, I logged into reddit to find, at the top of my feed, the heartbreaking news of Jonghyun’s suicide. Having just discovered this guy’s music, I was overcome by shock and more than a little grief. Although his impact on my life at that point was minimal compared to many other K-pop fans (as he was also a member of SHINee, one of the first Korean boybands to gain international fame almost 10 years ago), his music had left such an impression on me that it felt more personal than most other celebrity deaths ever have to me.

Re-listening to Op.2 now, I see it in a completely new light. It’s no less magnificent, but everything is now tinted with a premonitory glow. The lyrics, something I never bothered to look up my first time around, so blatantly predict Jonghyun’s suicide that it’s almost sickeningly comical. From “Let Me Out”:

Someone please hold me, I’m exhausted from this world
Someone please wipe me, I’m drenched with tears
Someone please notice my struggles first
Please acknowledge the poor me
Please help me

Or from “Lonely”:

Baby I’m so lonely, so lonely
I feel like I’m alone
When I see you so tired, I worry
that I’m baggage to you, that I’m too much

It goes on and on, it’s plastered all over the album. The entire thing now carries a haunting quality; it’s impossible to listen to without separating its contents from the circumstances that led to Jonghyun’s death. It ends up being one of the most beautifully sad albums I think I’ve ever listened to. Selfishly, I’m upset at Jonghyun’s passing as much because he took his own life before he ever got to experience happiness as I am because I’ll never get to hear new music from him, and then only weeks after I discovered him in the first place. Op.2 is a monolithic record for both its sound and for the outpouring of self contained within, and it’s something I never want to forget, nor is it something I can let pass by without deep reflection. K-pop simply doesn’t get much better than this; it just sucks that it cost so much for me to realize it.

1. G-Dragon – Kwon Ji Yong

1 - g-dragonTwo years ago, my then-fiancee and I were planning our wedding. Being that we were doing everything we could to save money, instead of hiring a DJ we decided to take care of the music ourselves, which involved creating our own playlist for the reception. At my best man’s request, I put a few K-pop songs on the playlist, not realizing that doing so would end up getting my wife so hooked on the stuff that I would eventually spiral down the K-pop hole after her. We still haven’t found our way out.

BIGBANG was Rachael’s first obsession. Over the next year and a half I was regaled with random factoids about each of the different members of the group, from things as mundane as their individual heights to intricate analyses of what would become of each of them as they each enlisted into the Korean military in the coming years to fulfill South Korea’s mandatory conscription program. I got to know their music pretty intimately as it played in the car when we drove places together, or when Rachael did chores around the apartment. G-Dragon was Rachael’s bias (favorite member of the group, for you non-K-pop nerds), and she began to explore his solo stuff as well, which I didn’t really like as much — but that didn’t stop the music from playing. This all culminated in the release of Kwon Ji Yong and, subsequently, getting to see G-Dragon live over the summer. Through this release and that concert experience, my appreciation for GD as an artist has skyrocketed. There’s no question in my mind that this is the best K-pop release of the year, and one of the best albums released all year regardless of genre.

The album represents a stylistic shift for GD, grittier and more personal than anything he’s released before. It shows GD breaking from his shell, making the music that best represents him, more than possibly anything that’s come before (save maybe for “Crooked”), exemplified not least by the album’s title, which is GD’s actual name. There are a bunch of lyrical references that those not familiar with GD or K-pop culture would probably miss (i.e. “Rest in piece (minus one)” from the opening track is a reference to PeaceMinusOne, GD’s fashion brand; the “Get your crayon, crayon” lyric in “BULLSHIT” is a reference to an older GD song, etc.), but even ignoring these, there’s a sense of restraint in GD’s earlier work that is just absent here.

It feels more personal than anything he’s ever done — the opening song “Middle Fingers Up” is a tirade against people who want to use his fame for their personal gain, while “Super Star” is a starkly intimate confession from one of the biggest, most well-known K-pop stars in all of South Korea: “I need somebody, I ain’t got nobody…hello??” The album’s apex, though, is the closing song, “Divina Commedia”, in which GD shows just how far removed he is from normal society — “While others grew, I listed stocks”, he sings, “That’s why I’m a little short.” Coming from a society that is steeped in superficiality and vanity, this album is the equivalent of ripping off a plastered-on mask. GD is at the peak of the world, and yet feels as inadequate as the next guy. In any other society this isn’t a particularly profound statement, but in K-pop, it’s almost revelatory.

GD’s self-revelation and honest assessment of himself stands as one of my favorite musical statements of the year, but my enjoyment of this album isn’t limited to that dimension of it. To me, it represents something far more important and personal — a deep connection I have with my wife. Rachael and I are fairly independent people with our own interests, so when those interests happen to intersect, it’s fantastic. I learned a genuine love of K-pop from her, and this has come to be one my favorite bonds that we share. Looking back, I can say without any doubt that it was Kwon Ji Yong that cemented that connection for me. Few things over the past year have been as important to me as that.

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